There was a different feel in the air after watching Shen and Zhao write another chapter in their extraordinary love story Monday night by winning gold for China and ending Russia’s 48-year reign in Olympic pairs figure skating.
Coming into the Vancouver games, the U.S. seemed to have a legitimate chance for a gold medal in men’s figure skating for the first time in over a decade. Led by 2009 World Champion Evan Lysacek, the American team came into the Vancouver games with three skaters capable of greatness, but certainly none of them are strangers to disappointment.
The sight of Russian vulnerability in the sport they have dominated for so long Monday night intensified hopes. Would defending gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko rise to the occasion or would the men from Team USA skate away with their first gold medal since Brian Boitano brought home gold from the Calgary games in 1988?
After the short program, Plushenko held a slim 0.55-point lead over Lysacek in the standings. That’s a drastic difference from four years ago when Lysacek literally imploded in the short program, leaving him with an insurmountable deficit.
But this time the Americans had history working in their favor.
No men’s figure skater has won back-to-back gold medals since Dick Button in 1948 and 1952 (Plushenko was the defending gold medalist coming into the games). Factor in that every American male skater that has ever come into the Olympic games as the current World Champion has taken a gold medal, and every indication that history can provide would have led you to believe that current World Champion Evan Lysacek was in for a big night.
For everything the short program brings in terms of energy and style, the long program drains it all out of the competitors. Only the strong survive the long program, and just like the cross-country skiing, stamina plays a major part in the outcome.
If anything was working in Evgeni Plushenko’s favor coming into the long program, it was the new scoring system that puts a much larger emphasis on technical elements than the artistry of skating. Plushenko has never been the most graceful or artistic skater, but man can the guy jump.
He came into the night having landed a quad jump in the short program and planned to do more of the same. The lack of a quad jump being the chink in Lycacek’s armor, he knew he was going to have to skate near perfection to beat the technical master Plushenko.
Everyone who watched the first half of Thursday night’s event got a chance to see the future of men’s figure skating on display.
Young Jeremy Abbott (USA) began to self-destruct for the second time, only to pull himself together and make a nice showing, finishing ninth.
Takahiko Kozuka (JPN) and Denis Tan (KAZ) followed Abbott and showed the raw talent that will become the polished front-runners for gold over the next four years. Neither skater is over 20-years-old, but both proved to have extraordinary talent and physical ability.
The field was full of big jumpers, but very few technicians Thursday night, and that didn’t really change in the second group. Home favorite Patrick Chan (CAN) had a rough night, falling several times, and was unable to finish better than fifth.
Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland came jumping to win it, but sloppy landings and a fall in the end cost him a medal.
Unfortunately, the star-power of Plushenko and Lycacek overshadowed the great night the Japanese team had. Nobunari Oda put on the most entertaining performance of the night, despite breaking a skate lace in the middle of his routine.
Fun and entertaining turned into a mad dash to get back on the ice as Oda had to ask for a referee’s timeout in order to repair a skate lace that broke during an attempted jump that ended in a fall. The timeout cost him a two-point penalty, but no one could deny the fact that Oda is a rising star.
Daisuke Takahashi came out and landed a quad and, despite having some minor issues, managed to finish with a combine score of 247.23. Good enough to finish in third place and land him the bronze medal.
American Johnny Weir, the man with a million obnoxious things to say and just as many flamboyant outfits to match, came out and actually skated what many would consider to be his best. A few minor bobbles in inexplicable places and a lack of overall difficulty ended up costing him a medal. He would finish in sixth place.
Lysacek Drew the daunting task of skating first in the second group. He looked extremely stiff and nervous in his warmup, but came out firing on all cylinders. After hitting his first jump, Lysacek needed to nail his second and most difficult jump, the triple axel. He not only hit the jump, but also never looked back.
His artistic interpretation came into full view as he fluently used the entirety of the ice. As the program came to a close, Lysacek hit his final triple lutz and went in for the kill. Knowing that Plushenko struggles with the artistic side of the long program, he went on to a footwork sequence that earned him additional points.
Looking back, his performance was technically just about perfect, but now he had the excruciating task of waiting until the defending gold medalist skated last.
Evgeni Plushenko came into his routine with confidence, knowing that he had the quad jumps and the power to muscle the more artist Lycacek off the top of the podium. The only catch to that strategy is that in order for it to be successful he would have to be perfect.
Plushenko knew he needed at least a 166.83 in order to win the gold. He loaded the front half of his routine with daring jump combinations, including a quad triple combination right out of the gate. Unfortunately, he would bobble on the following triple jump and the rest of his jumps from then on looked sloppy and rarely landed with a proper edge.
Because he had loaded the beginning of his program with jumps, the final minute of his routine consisted of spins and interpretation, exposing his inferiority in this area to the leading Lycacek.
In the end Plushenko's strategy would turn out to be a complete failure as he scored a 165.51. He was over two full points behind the American, Lysacek, who won gold and continued the world championship streak most recently carried on by Olympic analyst Scott Hamilton.
Gold- Evan Lycacek (USA)
Silver- Evgeni Plushenko (RUS)
Bonze- Daisuke Takahashi (JPN)
4. Stephane Lambiel (SUI)
5. Patrick Chan (CAN)
6. Johnny Weir (USA)
7. Nobunari Oda (JPN)
8. Takahiko Kozuka (JPN)
9. Jeremy Abbott (USA)
10. Michal Brezina (CZE)